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May 18, 2017

Ziauddin Sardarchronicles the diversity and richness of Islam and, in doing so, answers a host of frequently asked questions:

  • Is Islam inherently violent and misogynistic?
  • Why do young men and women choose to join the jihadi caliphate?
  • What part should Muhammad’s teachings play in our own times?

I studied a lot of this stuff at university e.g. the Mutaziltes and various philosophers so I knew that Islam has never been monolithic.  However, it was good to be reminded.

It is noteworthy that millenarian Islam has much in common who America’s doomsday merchants.

There enlightened places like Morocco and Indonesia.

Sardar lays out what he calls two entirely different ‘versions’ of Islam. One, he says, is based on ‘an old tradition of love and tolerance, perhaps drawing some inspiration from Sufism’. The other is what he terms ‘a more recent sectarian version that has no room for humanity and ethics’. The latter, Sardar explains, is rooted in one particular interpretation of Islam—Wahhabism, which is also the ideology of the state of Saudi Arabia. Over the years, the ‘totalitarian creed’ of Wahhabism has succeeded in rapidly expanding, so much so that, according to Sardar, it ‘now occupies the central position in Islamic orthodoxy’ for many Muslims. This has been made possible by Wahhabism’s outright suppression of the great tradition of critical thinking and free thought in Islam. Because of this, what is considered as ‘Islamic orthodoxy’ has, as Sardar puts it, ‘become more and more dogmatic, narrow, authoritarian and inhuman’. Muslim clerics who subscribe to this version of ‘Islamic orthodoxy’ have, he explains, ‘banned criticism’ and ‘stolen free will’, turning their followers ‘into empty vessels who have nothing more to do than gratefully receive and follow their hateful ideology’. It is this ‘orthodox dogma’, Sardar explains, that has led to terrorism in Islam’s name.?

Wahhabism, Sardar explains, is a fear-based ideology. It replaces love of God with fear of God. ‘But it is not just God’ that it wants its followers to fear, Sardar adds, ‘but everyone and everything’, including women, Muslims who understand Islam differently, and non-Muslims. Wahhabism ‘drains Islam of all ethical contents’, because of which its followers are led to think a host of barbarisms to be supposedly an expression of God’s will, including intolerance, misogyny, floggings, beheading, xenophobia and violence. Hate forms the core of this ideology, Sardar contends, adding that Wahhabi-inspired groups distort the Quranic notion of jihad to seek to legitimize horrific violence in its name.

Sardar believes that a great deal of the blame for the present violence in the name of Islam can be laid at the doorstep of sections of ‘Islamic orthodoxy’ that have fused with Wahhabism. Their forbidding of questioning and criticism, their claim that they alone represent truth and that all others are false and their insistence on Taqlid or blind following lead to an extreme intolerance of others. So, too, does their belief that what they call the Shariah, a body of laws, is divine and hence which they think must be imposed on Muslims, something that inevitably leads to conflict.

The ‘orthodox’ Muslim belief that what is called the Shariah is mandated by God, Sardar explains, is actually false. ‘There is nothing divine about the Shariah’, he says. ‘The only thing that can legitimately be described as divine in Islam is the Qur’an. The Shariah is a human construction, an attempt to understand the will of God in a particular context.’ What is considered by the ‘orthodox’ to be the Shariah ‘incorporated the logic of Muslim imperialism’, Sardar says, and also adopted ‘obnoxious Arab customs’ and so has become ‘dangerously obsolete’. Efforts to impose this legal code (in the name of establishing ‘Islamic governance’) thus inevitably lead to horrific oppression and violence?.?

Such oppression also draws sustenance from fabricated reports or Hadith falsely attributed to the Prophet, which number in their thousands, Sardar adds. ‘The elevation of the Shariah and manufactured hadith to the divine level has had a catastrophic effect on Muslims’, he notes. It has denied them agency, and has led them to believe that all they need to do is blindly obey the clerics, ‘no matter how barbaric or absurd the injunctions’ they insist on. ‘The vast majority of Muslims, including highly educated ones’, Sardar contends, ‘have become passive receivers of obscurantist dogma […] rather than active seekers after truth.’ ‘And if they are educated in madrasas, or have a mindless degree in science, engineering or medicine’, he adds, ‘they become empty vessels into which anything, however toxic, can be poured’. ‘Thus, Islamic orthodoxy itself is now the biggest problem facing Muslims’, Sardar says. ‘It does not offer […] a humane alternative’.

Sardar persuasively asserts that:

‘Both the Sunni and Shia orthodoxies have been covered with layer upon layer of manufactured dogma that is as absurd as it is dangerously obsolete. Of course the vast majority of orthodox Muslims […] are moderates and are truly horrified at what is being said and done in the name of Islam. But they have to realise that their cherished dogma, accepted so unquestioningly, has reduced them to dysfunctional societies and nations, and contains the seeds of strife and the horror they see all around their communities. The excesses of the extremists […] are derived from the very dogma the moderates themselves believe to be true. Enough is enough. It is time to rethink what Islam means in the twenty-first century.’

If, as Sardar says, the problem of ‘dehumanised, perverted interpretations’ of Islam, that have given rise to terrible barbarisms, including but not only violent jihadism, stems from ‘a particular ossified Islamic tradition that has become dominant’, the solution to the problem can, he says, also be found in the Islamic tradition. This is what he calls the ‘great critical and humanist tradition of Islam’. ‘Islamic history is full of critical voices and freethinkers who provide us with a totally different take on Islam’, Sardar writes, a history that goes back to Islam’s formative phase and that derives its inspiration from the Quran and the actions and sayings of the Prophet. Sardar reflects on the importance that these two sources of Islam place on learning, reflection and critical thought and on how the Quran regards reason as a means to get closer to God.

What he calls the ‘critical and freethinking tradition of Islam’, which he appeals to Muslims to recover and celebrate, began, Sardar says, just over a century after the Prophet’s demise. He celebrates in particular the legacy of the Mutazilites, Muslim scholars who were rationalists and also humanistic. They also advocated a contextual understanding of the Quran, which they regarded as created and not eternal. Hence, for them, ‘not everything in the Quran had universal validity’. They believed that some of its content ‘was very specific and directed towards the historic community it was guiding during the life of the Prophet’, a position that Sardar seems to enthusiastically endorse.

Sardar also sees hope in the rich tradition of Sufism in offering contemporary Muslims an alternative to the stultifying, suffocating ‘Islamic orthodoxy’, hailing the Sufis’ love of God and their critique of organized religiosity and ritualism.

Pained at the horrific conditions of many Muslim societies today, that are characterized by patriarchy, intolerance, violence and oppression, Sardar insists that the root cause for their malaise is what has come to be seen as ‘Islamic orthodoxy’ (in its Sunni as well as Shia versions). Hence, the only solution lies in replacing this with an alternate understanding of Islam, one drawing on the tradition of Muslims like the Mutazilites, who placed a premium on reason in their understanding of Islam, and the Sufis, for whom love was the pivot.

When he says, “And what’s wrong with ordinary Muslims interpreting the Qur’an for themselves?” I am thinking that’s what caused all the trouble in the first place.

It is irritating that this book doesn’t have an index.

I had to look up ‘occultation’ = an event that occurs when one object is hidden by another object.


 ‘The vast majority of Muslims have become passive receivers of obscurantist dogma.’

Make no mistake: these dogmatic thugs hate rational and freethinking Muslims more than they hate non-Muslims or the West.

The facial furniture served the function of a military uniform. It made perfect sense in the specific context. I suspect that the Prophet would have provided his followers with military uniforms, if they had been available. ……The literalist would have us believe that everything the Prophet did or liked or disliked has universal import. He rode a camel, but even the literalists prefer to use a more modern means of transport. He fought with swords, but they are not much use in the age of guns and bombs

Imitation is all that the Muslims can do; there can be no new thought or interpretations. The entire history and culture of Muslim civilisation is rejected as deviancy and degeneration. The Wahhabis regard anyone not adhering to Wahhabi beliefs and prac­tices, including all other Muslims but particularly the Shia, as hostile dwellers in the domain of unbelief.

The love of God emphasised by Sufism and other interpretations is now replaced by fear of God.

Wahhabism has three main characteristics. First, like the Kharjites, the Wahhabis believe that history ends with the Prophet Muhammad. As such, the worldview of Wah­habism is ahistorical. Wahhabis abhor history, and see Islam as a utopia that exists outside history. Nothing that has happened since the time of the Prophet and his pious companions, including the great thought, learning and culture of Islam and its civilisation, is of any significance. Wahhabism has no concept of human progress, moral development or evolution.

Second, Wahhabism has no notion of ethics; it drains Islam of all ethical contents. Thus, anything can be jus­tified in the name of God, as an expression of the will of God. Intolerance, misogyny, floggings, beheading and xenophobia, as well as violations of basic human rights and violence, can be justified as divine will. Third, the state is unaccountable to anyone but God, whose will it exercises through the Shariah, or ‘Islamic law’. The Sha­riah provides the state with the only legitimacy it needs, and as long as the state enforces the Shariah no one can legitimately overthrow it. Party politics, democracy and other such ‘secular’ concerns have no place in the state.

Most Salafis hate everything about the world — they hate all other Muslims for not being Good Muslims (that is, like them); they hate all Muslim countries for not being `Islamic states’, and, most of all, they hate the West for being everything they are not.

The Muslim commu­nity is permitted to defend itself if attacked. The Qur’an declares: ‘Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight you and do not transgress, certainly God loves not the aggressors’ (2:190). The emphasis is on not transgressing, by which is meant not committing atrocities, not killing women, children and non-combatants, not burning down property or destroying people’s livelihood, and responding disproportionately. For this is the way to self-destruction: `Do not with your own hands hurl yourself to destruc­tion’ (2:195). Moreover, if the enemy ceases fighting, the Muslims have to lay down their weapons; only hostility is to be met with hostility. Thus defensive jihad is based on the principle of necessity and is for resistance, not to exterminate the enemy but only to persuade them to cease hostilities.

In classical Muslim jurisprudence, the last option comes with a string of conditions. Physical jihad is still jihad in the name of God, so it cannot be an act of aggression, which is forbidden by the Qur’an. It cannot be a jihad for the benefit, utility or material gains of a state. One group of Muslims cannot declare jihad on another group of Muslims. The decision to undertake jihad cannot be based on the whims of an individual or some authori­tarian or demented ruler but has to have the ijma or the consensus of the whole community — a consensus that is reached after much debate and discussion. There has to be a reasonable probability of success; it is not a suicide mission. And during conflict, the essential conditions of defensive jihad must also apply to offensive jihad: the val­ues of life, property and human rights must be preserved.

ISIS, however, does have one important additional ingredient: millenarianism. The cult believes that we are living in the end times when the return of the Mandi is imminent. There will be a great battle between the Mandi and his opponent Dajjal (Antichrist).

while the orthodox Shia wait passively and patiently for the end of days and the arrival of the Mandi, ISIS wants to hasten the process and propagates the belief that its activities, seen by the world as ‘outrageous and despic­able’, will speed up his return.

They would ask: Why is it legitimate for the West to have weapons but illegitimate for Muslims to arm themselves? Why is it that Israel can have nuclear capability but Iran cannot? Why is it that the Saudis can be equipped with the latest weaponry but the Hutis and other groups fighting against them in Yemen, or those fighting against the Assad regime in Syria, are denied the means to fight and defend themselves? ISIS presents an opportunity for payback for such hypocritical policies.

Indeed, the more educated ISIS recruits are following a well-established British tradition. For example, in the late 193os, a number of young British men, including George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, joined the Brigades to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

While insulting the Prophet is regarded as blas­phemy, which carries a death penalty in certain countries, quoting or using a dubious hadith that insults the Prophet’s intelligence and integrity is a normal everyday occur­rence.

What one is exhorted to read are the ‘signs of God’, which are manifest both in the revelation and in the material world.

‘The Pen’, which has the most exalted place in Islam, is a metaphor for thought, reflection, criticism, the study of nature, the material world and gen­eral pursuit of knowledge. The Qur’an makes a distinction between ‘those who have knowledge and those who have no knowledge’ (39:9); and repeatedly asks the believers to think for themselves and study the signs of nature.

The Prophetic traditions supplement these teachings of the Qur’an. ‘The ink of the scholar’, the Prophet is reported to have said, ‘is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.’ He also said: ‘Seek knowledge from the cra­dle to the grave’; ‘An hour’s study of nature is better than a year’s adoration’

rejected the idea of praying during an eclipse. Al-Ghazali acknowledges that ‘these things have been established by astronomical and mathematical evidence which leaves no room for doubt’. Nevertheless, since the Prophet declared that when you see an eclipse you must seek refuge in the contemplation of God and in prayer’, the eclipse prayer is obligatory.

As the late George Makdisi, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at University of Pennsylvania, who spent a lifetime studying how Islam humanised Europe, shows so painstakingly in The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and Christian West, there was hardly any aspect of Islamic humanism which Europe did not copy: from textbooks and academic institutions, structures and slo­gans to singularity in character, behaviour and dress; from emphasis on eloquence and display of literary prowess to the cult of classical language; from the works on gov­ernment administration as part of moral philosophy to the history of cities, the novella, practical and specula­tive grammar to historical and textual criticism.

the Qur’anic notion of knowledge, which had over 500 definitions and varieties during the classical period, was reduced from meaning all knowledge — includ­ing, most importantly, scientific knowledge — to simply meaning ‘religious knowledge’. Al-Ghazali regarded ijma, consensus, in broad terms and talked about the consen­sus of the Muslim community. Indeed, he even included dead Muslims of the past as well as Muslims living in the present everywhere. But even the open-ended notion of Al-Ghazali’s ijma was eventually reduced to mean only `the consensus of religious scholars’

Over centu­ries, Islamic orthodoxy has shaped a mindset that turns the brain of even the most educated person into marsh­mallow. They can be highly critical in other spheres of life but when it comes to religion the critical faculties are suspended, conscience is put aside, and everything is accepted without question.

The only real and lasting solution to extrem­ism — from non-violent all the way to ISIS — is to break the walls of these prisons and free the intellect and the conscience of the believers.

Regarding the Qur’an, for example, we need to ask: Is every injunction in the Sacred Text universal? What in the Qur’an is contex­tual and thus merely historical? Is it a text to be consumed or interrogated? What are we to do with the ‘difficult’ verses

Then there are the so-called religious scholars. At the moment, almost anyone, literate, semi-literate or totally ignorant, can describe themselves as an alim, or religious scholar. All they need to set up shop —_start giving advice and fatwas in a mosque or on YouTube, teaching in a madrassa, or preaching on an evangelical channel — is to be able to quote a few verses of the Qur’an and a handful of hadith by memory. Contrast this with the rabbis or priests who have to study for years and go through long, arduous training.

Even a fatwa justifying paedophilia as ‘God’s Law’ has been issued

as Rumi put it, ‘the wound is the place where light enters’.

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